India’s Modi Seeks to Reshape Urban Environment

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US$7.5-billion plan to build 100 “smart cities” across India by 2022, an idea generated by the dramatic reshaping of China’s urban environment, is audacious to say the least.

But in a country where more than a third of urban dwellers lack access to piped water, where building collapses are a daily occurrence, where corruption is overwhelming and where a tenacious bureaucracy builds in delays of months or even years to projects, many planners question if Modi can realize his dream.

Planners say the template for such settlements is based on the concepts of green cities, zero waste and optical fibre networks. They leverage digital technology to operate essential services like public transport networks, water and power distribution supplies and waste disposal to make urban systems more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable. Governments from China, Japan and Singapore will partner with India in the initiative.

Modi has been inspired by China, which boasts state-of-the-art cities such as Tianjin’s famous Eco-city. Proponents of smart cities say the idea augurs well for developing economies such as India’s, able to leapfrog legacy issues that face more built-up economies to harness urban growth to sustainable development. State-of-the-art infrastructure can replace dilapidated and unsustainable systems by avoiding the costs of retrofitting.

Certainly India’s burgeoning urban population makes the need for urbanization more pressing. According to a study by industry body Nasscom, Indian towns and cities will host 600 million people by 2031, approximately the combined population of the United States, Russia and Japan.

With a boom in industry and services outpacing agricultural growth, at least 25 million more people are expected to migrate from country to town over the next couple of decades, state surveys say. Under such a scenario, smart cities would be better able to handle issues such as power, water distribution, waste disposal, drainage, healthcare and education through extensive use of technology.

Two of Modi's smart cities are already underway – the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, and Dholera, an industrial hub on the Delhi-Mumbai corridor. These cities quintessentially embody Modi’s plan to transform the chaotic image of an urban India crumbling under the onslaught of population growth.

However, critics say the viability of these cities can't be vouched for as they are still at the inception stage. Many dismiss the idea as a 21st-Century urban utopia incongruous with a country that is home to 194.6 million undernourished people, the highest in the world, according to a recent annual report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

That is more than 15 percent of the country’s population, exceeding China in both absolute numbers and the proportion of malnourished. In addition, close to 23 percent of Indians currently live on less than two dollars a day while malnutrition kills 1.3 million children every year. Some 53 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people have no access to toilets or sanitation and defecate in the open – many by choice – generating huge health problems.

"Before we dream of leaping to the 21st century, can we first tackle 19th century issues that bedevil our cities? " asked Kirit Pandit, an urban planner formerly with the Ministry of Urban Development. "Erratic water and power supply, hazardous levels of pollution, shrinking homes, poor sanitation, overstretched transport and absence of parks and public spaces make for a poor quality of life for millions. The government needs to address these rudimentary issues first."

Civic woes further bedevil most Indian cities. More than a third of urban India lacks access to piped waters. The average daily per capita availability of water in the country has plummeted by over 20 percent in the past 15 years to an estimated 100 litres, available for just one to three hours. Further, only a fifth of waste water generated in Indian towns is treated.

Torrential monsoonal rains in Mumbai, India's financial capital reduce the city of 12 million to a watery mess each year. Within 48 hours of rainfall on June 20 and 21 this year, the local municipal body – Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) – had received 22 complaints of house and wall collapses. The city hosts 16,000 crumbling and unsafe buildings in urgent need of a revamp, according to BMC officials.

The national capital of New Delhi, where structural fragility and blatant disregard for rules routinely bring down buildings, fares no better. Building collapses are fairly common in Kolkata too. Over 3,000 old buildings have been categorised `dangerous' by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Experts say that lax and poorly enforced construction standards by civic authorities amid booming demand for housing is to blame. Rampant corruption lets unscrupulous builders get away with building violations after they pay bribes.

Builders complain that they find the regulatory processes to get approvals for their projects far too cumbersome, forcing them to take short cuts. Construction of illegal and unsafe buildings which crumble and kill thousands has thus become a norm.

Critics also point out that China may not be the best role model for India to emulate in its quest for modernization as the former has not respected tradition in its zeal for urban chic. In fact the country has for several decades been decimating thousands of years of history by wrecking heritage structures to build vast shiny new cities. Architects and historians are alarmed at the loss of history. According to reports, over 20,000 cultural heritage sites have been wiped out on the mainland since the 1980s when the second national culture heritage census took place between 1981 and 1985 at the expense of conservation efforts.

Indeed, visitors to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou today find cities that look more like Miami Beach than parts of China. "Does India want to do this?" ask the critics.

Another gargantuan challenge for builders of smart cities in India, say urban planners, will be land acquisition, a hotbed for controversy. "India has a federal democratic structure and building smart cities will require coordination and synergy with 29 Indian states along with various urban local bodies. Handling this multiplicity of authority and attendant bureaucracy will be a daunting task. New projects in India often remain mired for years in land acquisition rights and lengthy approval processes, as well as finding the right location," said architect Gautam Bhatia.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has described India as a place where “islands of California” exist amidst a “sea of sub-Saharan Africa.” Smart cities, fear many, might well further entrench these inequities in Asia's third largest economy. In its zeal to project India as a First World country, the incumbent nationalist government is pushing for glamorous projects rather than a development agenda that is wholesome, inclusive and sustainable.

Neeta Lal, a New Delhi-based senior journalist, was nominated for the World Media Summit Awards 2014 & SOPA Awards 2014. Twitter: Neeta_com